Here’s how a highly intensive manufacturer of insulation and related building products with a presence in 33 countries in Europe, North America and Asia has been on a journey towards the circular economy for over 20 years, and knows it still has far to go.

Owens Corning’s website defines sustainability as being about meeting the needs of the present while leaving the world a better place for the future. It claims that sustainability is at “the heart of our business, from the products we make to the way we make them”. It declares that it “considers the future in the decisions we make today…working to expand our handprint while we reduce our footprint”.

Its 2030 goals are “to be a net-positive company, one where the positive impacts of our people and products (our handprint) exceeds the negative impacts of our operations (our footprint)”.

For the company, sustainability includes fairness, attested to by it having received a perfect score of 100 per cent on the Corporate Equality Index released by the Human Rights Campaign.

The journey starts

After 61 years of existence, the company decided it was time for a change. In 1999 it embarked on an energy efficiency program by declaring a target of reducing energy costs by 20 per cent.

To achieve this, it formed an internal energy services company and introduced simple measurements of performance, encouraging ideas for improvements through competitions and awards.

By 2003, annual energy costs had fallen US$40 million at a cost of US$20 million, despite production increasing by 18 per cent and energy prices by 10 per cent.

Three quarters of these gains were down to ideas from employees. The 20 per cent target was achieved in 10 years. Five years later it had reduced energy intensity by a further 20 per cent.

Globally, it is now sourcing two thirds of its energy renewably.

The 2020 goals

It established its first set of 10-year footprint reduction goals in 2002. By the end of 2010, it had significantly reduced its environmental footprint so made a new set of goals for 2020.

In 2015, it already had met its greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions goals so increased its 2020 commitments to 50 per cent and 75 per cent reductions for these respective impacts, and incorporated science-based greenhouse gas target-setting methodology into its strategy.

2030 goals

In 2019 it adopted 2030 goals and commitments. These seek to increase its “product handprint”, which it defines as the positive impacts that its products have, at the same time as reducing its environmental footprint and increasing its “social handprint”.

This last includes efforts to help its employees and their families get and stay healthy, incorporating inclusion and diversity goals for the first time, and an aspiration to “lead in the circular economy”.

It aims to halve the negative impact of its operations, including on greenhouse gas emissions, and continue the transition to 100 per cent renewable electricity.

Circular economy plans

The company is embracing the concept of the circular economy. Its aspiration is that “every raw material or resource, extracted for our products/processes, remains in the economy indefinitely”. This includes packaging materials.

The company’s chair and chief executive explains that the company is constantly reinventing its approach: “We have established a new circular economy team to work full-time toward our goal of building a circular economy model to further our sustainable growth strategy.”

Its products are intended partly to help its customers, their customers, and consumers, meet their own sustainability goals by, for example, helping them to save energy when using their products, and recycle them at their end of their useful life.

At the opposite end of the circle, the aim is to minimise virgin raw materials, waste, energy and emissions through intelligent design, renewable and recycled input, and energy-efficient production.

The idea is that the materials used can be continuously be used for beneficial purposes.

The difficult segment of this circle at this time in history is to find end-of-life solutions that permit the reuse of components and materials.

The company recognises that new approaches and business models are needed that can enable products and materials to be reused and repurposed indefinitely, something our manufacturing system has not had to deal with this problem before.

Partnering with stakeholders

To help it achieve its aims, the company collaborates up and down its supply chain, with its stakeholders – customers, suppliers, communities, academics, policy makers, government entities, and other organisations.

This collaboration process began in 2013 with stakeholders questioned and revisited every couple of years or so to check progress and obtain suggestions.

[insert materiality-matrix-2019.png. Caption: X uses stakeholder engagement to identify the relative rankings by company impact and influence on stakeholders of 16 material topics, which has produced a materiality matrix for the company’s global operations.

Owens Corning uses stakeholder engagement to identify the relative rankings by company impact and influence on stakeholders of 16 material topics, which has produced a materiality matrix for the company’s global operations

Besides a materiality matrix for global operations, the company has also developed similar regional materiality matrices for the America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. This is to assist in understanding how regional differences can drive an effective sustainability strategy to reach its 2030 goals.

Many challenges remain:

  • to eliminate from its foam insulants blowing agents that have high global warming potential
  • to employ formaldehyde-free binders for global production of technical insulation and mineral wool products
  • to increase the amount of scrap material taken back from customers’ processes
  • to use more recycled materials and production waste in products
  • and to reduce more Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions

How does the company measure its progress?

Its last sustainability report runs to over 300 pages and contains an incredible amount of detail.

Here is a snippet: for its operations outside of North America it achieved an annual saving of US$1,272,156 on energy costs, for an investment of US$1,218,109, with an estimated annual saving of 9928 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

In other words, the payback on energy efficiency measures was less than a year. After that savings are continuously made.

These results are in line with what one expects from initiating an energy management system – there are early big wins, and continuous improvement is possible. Even after 20 years further savings can always be found.

The company is exceptional for having started on this journey so long ago, although there are others that started earlier. But it still has far to go, because experience is constantly growing and revealing more opportunities for improvement.

As it says, new techniques for designing products so that they can be easily reused at the end of their life in the current incarnation is a discipline that is in its infancy; there are a few design courses training the designers of tomorrow in these skills because they are not yet known, and any of these designers coming out of college now will be designing for the rest of their lives; this makes change slow.

Going net positive

An average of 63 per cent of savings from energy efficiency gains are lost. This is due to “the rebound effect”, according to the latest scientific research reviewing 33 previous studies.

One reason for this is that the money saved from greater efficiency is spent on something else – which of course has an environmental impact. This may be true for resource efficiency also.

But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to limit the rebound effect.

One answer is to treble down on energy efficiency and do three times as much to achieve the same effect, says co-author of the research, Gregor Semieniuk at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

This is why Owens Corning’s new policy to be net positive is essential for everyone: if two thirds of efficiency gains are wiped out, it’s necessary to take three steps forward to attain one of genuine progress.

David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Industry and ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.